Adhering to social distancing regulations aimed at stemming the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv’s emblematic Rabin Square on Sunday night for the latest “black flag” demonstration against an alleged erosion of Israeli democracy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.
With demonstrators keeping two meters from each other, in accordance with the Health Ministry rules allowing public protest, the rally, which organizers said was attended by over 5,000 people, was the most political in nature of the several led by the grassroots movement over the past month that restrictions have been in place.
Several thousand more people participated in virtual versions of the rally on Facebook and Zoom, due to coronavirus fears.
Addressing the crowd Sunday, Yesh Atid-Telem leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon both accused Netanyahu of destroying Israeli democracy and said their former ally, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, was allowing it to happen by seeking to join him in government. The leader of the predominately Arab Joint List party Ayman Odeh and Meretz MK Yair Golan also spoke. It was the first “black flag” rally that allowed politicians to speak.
In a bitter attack on Gantz, Lapid said that the Blue and White leader, who caused a split in the party last month when he agreed to move towards a unity coalition with Netanyahu, had become part of the problem.
“They are fighting to get into the government,” Lapid said of his former partner. “Telling themselves stories. They say, ‘We’ll fight from the inside.’ You won’t fight from the inside. You don’t fight corruption from within. If you’re inside, you’re part of it.”
As unity talks on forming a government first headed by Netanyahu and then Gantz continued Sunday, Lapid derided the effort.
“The government being formed isn’t an emergency government or a national unity government. It is the fifth Netanyahu government. In the negotiations, they didn’t even talk about the coronavirus. They didn’t talk about the economy. They talked about themselves. About their jobs. Those who broke up Blue and White and defrauded us are going to sit under a man indicted for fraud. Those who breached our trust, are going to sit under a man indicted for breach of trust. Those who were bribed with jobs and perks, are going to sit under a man indicted for bribery.”
Netanyahu faces bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges in three cases. His trial was to have begun on March 17, but most of the courts were closed with the outbreak of the pandemic, and it has now been postponed to May, at the earliest. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted political coup, involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution
Lapid claimed the reportedly imminent deal would allow Netanyahu to evade the criminal charges (though Gantz and his party have insisted that they will not allow any government action to weaken the justice system).
“A person with indictments can’t appoint a police chief, a state prosecutor, an attorney general, the judges who will deal with his case. That is Netanyahu’s list of demands. Those that give in to those demands aren’t an opposing voice, they are just decoration,” Lapid seethed.
“That’s how democracies die in the 21st century. They’re not wiped out by tanks overrunning parliament. They die from within. Five years ago, Turkey was still a functioning democracy. Four years ago, Hungary was still a democracy. They died from within. Because good people were silent and weak people surrendered.”
Lapid vowed that he would “never surrender.”
Ya’alon, in a separate speech, accused Netanyahu of leading the coronavirus crisis based on “political considerations, for which we paid and we will pay in human life.
“The State of Israel needs healing, and not just from the epidemic. The State of Israel needs healing through a leadership that cares for the people and not for itself. Leadership that will put out the fire of hatred and unite all parts of society,” he said.
Addressing Gantz, Ya’alon said he believed that his fellow former IDF chief of staff was being honest when he said that he was seeking a unity government due to a sense of duty to help during the pandemic. But he said that Gantz was being misled.
“It is clear that what interests Netanyahu is not the virus, but his own treatment, and his escape from the defendants’ bench. You have [been asked] to agree to enact unconstitutional laws. You spoke about a ‘unity’ and ’emergency’ government but you will be part of an “immunity’ and ‘corruption’ government.”
One issue reportedly being negotiated is Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court may rule that he cannot be prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development that could leave Gantz as premier for the whole term of their coalition. Netanyahu has therefore reportedly been trying to engineer some kind of legislative guarantee that Gantz would not take over as prime minister in the event of such a court ruling.
The “black flag” movement’s name has come from demonstrators pinning black flags to their vehicles and homes to symbolize what they believe is a danger to Israel’s democracy posed by Netanyahu’s continued rule.
On Thursday, organizers said some 2,000 took part in a similar rally in Habima Square in Tel Aviv.
Previously, demonstrators often kept to their cars in order to uphold social distancing directives aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Last Monday, dozens of black flag protesters demonstrated next to the home of Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi. The protest leaders said police handed five of them fines for refusing to disperse the “banned gathering.”
They said the fines ranged from NIS 475 to 5,000 ($133-$1,400) and vowed not to pay them, accusing police of trying to “suppress the protest with huge fines.”
Ashkenazi himself later urged authorities to consider canceling the police fines.
“Even during these days, we must guarantee freedom of speech and the right to protest, provided that the protesters adhere to the Health Ministry guidelines,” he said in a tweet.